“Spare Change to me is an extraordinary illustration of what homeless people can do, because they can reach out to the public and say ‘Here we are,’ and we’re intelligent and sensitive people. We’re poets; we’re writers; we’re not crazy. We’ll tell you what caused our situation and we’ll ask you to do something about it.”
These words, encased behind a flimsy pane of transparent plastic, catch my eye immediately upon entering the spectacularly cluttered, windowless and low-ceilinged office. Tucked into the blue paperboard frame that enshrines the quote is a glossy black and white passport-sized photo of renowned historian and activist Dr. Howard Zinn.
That day—my first as Editor at Spare Change—was a whirlwind. The profound sense of disorganization that pervaded the space, the seemingly chaotic and nuanced history of the place, simultaneously alarmed and enticed my natural predilection for order and control. Yet in the midst of my disorientation, I felt strangely calmed by Zinn’s words. If working at Spare Change would mean a kind of political and philosophical camaraderie with a man whose work I so greatly admired, I was ready to go down the rabbit hole.
Howard Zinn was a continual advocate and supporter of Spare Change News throughout the history of this publication. He repeatedly contributed to the newspaper and to the Homeless Empowerment Project, donating money, goods and time towards the social and economic advancement of people who are commonly rendered underserved, marginalized and voiceless.
In his analyses of history, Zinn sought throughout his career to develop counternarratives. He shunned the notion that there is any “objective” or “absolute” version of truth, instead advocating for the recognition of plurality of historical perspectives. Since mainstream chronicles of the past often unilaterally represent the version of events favored by privileged peoples (i.e., history’s winners), Zinn countered by offering “peoples’ histories”.
For instance, in his seminal A People’s History of the United States (1980), Dr. Zinn offers an alternative to the Colombian and Founding Fathers-centric version of reality (still) predominantly presented in America’s primary and secondary schools. In this text and many others, the author takes the side of history’s “losers”, recounting how social developments affected relatively powerless groups in the U.S., seeking to represent the perspectives of American Indians, African Americans, women, the working class, and others.
While many scholars are content to make critical remarks while remaining above the fray—the “armchair liberals”, in the words of one Spare Change vendor—Howard Zinn was a different sort of academic. His close involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War actions of the 1960s illustrate how his work on the street was as significant as the erudition he displayed in the classroom. Meanwhile, Zinn realized his professed passion for elevating the voices of poor and relatively less-privileged peoples through action in his unwavering support for Spare Change.
Dr. Zinn held extended interviews with this newspaper at two points over the course of our history. The conversations that ensued were published in the 10/16/96, 06/03/99, and 06/17/99 issues of Spare Change. In commemoration of Zinn’s contribution to our organization, I’d like to highlight excerpts from these dialogues and then pose some points of reflection for us, the new generation of activists to carry the torch that Howard has passed.
“…Of course capitalism breeds unemployment. There’s always a large number of unemployed—a labor pool from which capitalists can draw and which makes it unimportant for them to treat their workers well or to care what happens to them because they can always be replaced. So the profit motive in capitalism is a force that puts moral, human considerations as secondary to the accumulation of profit; racism and exploitation are inevitable in a system like that.” (Spare Change; 06/03/99)
These words, uttered more than a decade ago, are tremendously relevant to the current state of affairs in American society. With continued high unemployment numbers—despite signs of economic recovery within the corporate system—we should collectively reevaluate our values on a national scale. We exist now at a pivotal moment, in which we have the opportunity to rebuild our economy based not on unbridled and unregulated capitalism—an ideology that always puts profit first—instead to focus on creating the most livable society possible for the greatest number of people.
On The Media:
“The major media are really complicit in everything that’s going on and therefore if you want to know what’s happening in this country you have to get by the major media. You have to read little community newspapers. You have to read the radical press. You have to read all of these fliers that people hand out on the streets. You have to read Spare Change. These are sources of information that you can’t get anywhere else.” (Spare Change; 10/16/96)
Howard Zinn made this assessment nearly 14 years ago, at the dawn of the Internet age. Since then, major media have become even more consolidated. By 2004, five major corporations controlled the vast majority of media outlets in the U.S., according to the Media Reform Information Center. The trend towards monopoly continues today. Yet simultaneously, unofficial, unsanctioned, and unregulated information transfer has surged, widely disseminated through ubiquitous Internet communication technologies. Citizen participation and interaction with media is increasing exponentially, but government and corporate entities still wield ultimate power. Difficult questions remain about how to harness the potential of the Internet and social networking, especially for resource-strapped outlets like Spare Change.
On Social Movements:
“Where the demand hasn’t come from below, you don’t have any restraints. So when that top becomes oppressive there’s no counter force. But if you have a grassroots movement from below, that forces the government to do certain things for people. It isn’t simply the government giving out of its beneficence and making people dependent. You have an independent force in the society pushing the government to do this, watching and keeping track. Then the government becomes an instrument for doing good things.” (10/16/96)
Much of what Zinn wrote in his peoples’ histories focused on how at various moments in America’s legacy, groups of citizens have organized for, and been able to effect change due to collective impetus for social progression. In contrast, these same techniques of activism and organization are now being employed to resist broadband social change, which would be implemented by what is often labeled as a Leftist Congress and White House. While the original Boston Tea Part was about overturning a specific set of governmental policies, the contemporary Tea Party movement prides itself on blocking major policy reforms that would disrupt a status quo which favors society’s Haves and further marginalizes its Have Nots. The irony of this grassroots groundswell towards conservatism would likely not have been lost on Dr. Zinn.
“…Homelessness has always been an indicator of the economic health of society, which suggests that today, despite the high Dow Joes average, if you have several million homeless people in the United States today…that is a sign of the sickness of the economy.” (03/06/99)
“We have a political Bill of Rights, but we don’t have an economic Bill of Rights. People haven’t really questioned the fact that there is no Constitutional right to a home. If there is a Constitutional right to Life and Liberty, but those rights don’t mean anything unless you have a place to live, unless you have healthcare, food, unless you can survive.” (10/16/96)
Zinn’s comments over a decade ago seem prescient, given the current social and economic climate in the United States. At the pinnacle of America’s economic boom of the late 1990s—the age of dot com profits and a national fiscal surplus—Zinn discerned that our economic system was infirm. Today, evidence of the cancer is widespread. And if homelessness was a problem then, it should be considered epidemic now. According to a report published in mid 2009 by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the Great Recession will force an additional 1.5 million people into homelessness. This estimate would supplement the already epic number of people living in situations of unstable housing, which a study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty approximated at between 2.3 and 3.5 million people, as of January 2009. Perhaps it is time to return to Zinn’s vision for an economic Bill of Rights, an idea that could create stability to improve the human condition at this crucial historical juncture.
People aligned with and sometimes obscured in the fight for equality have lost a great ally with the death of Howard Zinn. Paul Marcus, Executive Director of Community Change, Inc., an organization that considered Zinn a good friend, notes that “He was a remarkable man and his passing is a great loss for all people concerned about social justice.” Noam Chomsky, a longtime colleague, fellow activist, and intimate friend of Zinn’s said, “He was a close personal friend for 45 years, families were close too, but his loss will be felt in far wider circles than his family and many friends.”
To most righteously honor the legacy of Dr. Howard Zinn, let us—the next generation of advocates for justice and allies of the underserved—continue to progress forward with renewed vigor and commitment to social change.